Take Care of the Great ED You Want to Keep

My last few posts have been an informal series. I posted about what I believe makes a good Board Chair. I wrote a second post on the relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO. I listed 8 Ways to Be a Great Board Member and I provided a framework for doing an Annual CEO Performance Review.

One reader made an excellent comment on my post on performance reviews, noting that it is critical that the CEO and board be aligned on priorities in advance. I think it is a great addition.

Another reader shared a story in which her organization demanded too much of an executive director they wanted to keep. In this post, I share this reader’s story.

By Not Paying Attention, We Let Our ED Burn Out

As told by a Board Chair Somewhere in the US

My story is about a statewide advocacy organization in a geographically large state. I am the board chair. Four other people also serve on the board, for a total of five. The other four are pretty big honchos in the state with important day jobs. They are less hands on than I am.

We have one full time staff person – our Executive Director, whom I will call Chris — and one part time staff person. The three of us work very closely together. The three of us are also long-time friends so we know each other well. The staff work really hard despite many challenges – not just to achieve our vision but also to cover the entire state with only two people.

About two years ago, Chris, the Executive Director, came to me and said, “I found a job that pays more and is less stressful. So, I am leaving the organization.” I was totally surprised. I responded that the three of us should meet to strategize next steps.

We got together at my office. I began by saying, “Chris is leaving. So, what do we need to do next? What do we need to do to hire a new ED?” We were sitting there strategizing and talking when I noticed that Chris was being exceedingly quiet. And after a bit, I finally I woke up to the fact that we, that our organization, had burnt out our executive director. I said it out loud. I turned to Chris and said, “Chris, we have burnt you out. And I apologize.” And the other staff person nodded and agreed with me.

We continued to talk. We had to define the new director’s role and create a job description. We outlined what the organization needed and what the new ED would need. We decided a few things: The pay for the new ED had to increase and we had to provide more benefits. And we agreed that an executive assistant was required. We acknowledged that there was no way one and a half staff people could possibly do the work and cover the entire state.

The Changes Needed to Attract a New ED Convinced the Current One to Stay

Chris turned to us with tears in their eyes and started crying. Actually, by this time, all three of us were crying. Chris said, “You know what, with these changes, I would take that job.” Chris did not leave and is still our executive director and doing a great job. We did not want to lose Chris for sure. The other position Chris had landed was a good one with a big pay raise and almost no stress. I think Chris wanted to stay because of passion for our mission.

I went back to the board and had a short conversation. I explained that we had made a mistake in how we treated Chris and outlined what the staff person, Chris, and I had decided. And I told them that Chris was staying since we were making improvements. They were okay with the decision. This is important because we have to raise more money in order to retain Chris, provide extra benefits, and hire an executive assistant. I needed the full board to buy in.

Lessons Learned: Pay Attention

As board chair, the learning lesson for me is to remember that much of my job is to support my executive director. I had been paying attention to all the board duties you typically need to focus on – fiduciary responsibility and making sure the organization was accountable. But I was not paying attention to burnout. I was not paying attention to how much the organization was demanding of our executive director. I think admitting it out loud, admitting that I had made a mistake was important. My “speaking it” allowed the other staff person to come around and say, “Yeah, I agree. We made a mistake.” So, my lesson is to pay attention to the needs of an executive director you like and want to keep.

Lessons Learned: Be Frank, Do Salary Comparisons, Do Formal Performance Reviews

Going forward, if I am board chair of another organization, I would have a frank conversation with the ED. I would share this story, without necessarily mentioning the name of the organization or people involved, and say, “Look, I’ve had this experience. I have learned from it. So, I am going to do a reality check with you. I expect you to have an honest dialogue about whether or not you are burnt out or whether you are heading to burnout. Here there is also a lesson for the ED, for Chris. And that is to articulate their needs. I believe that communication is essential no matter what.

In the future, I will look at comparison salaries each year, which we did not do. It would have been a good idea because we would have known we were underpaying.

Another check and balance I am implementing is to do an annual performance review of the ED. Before, I would have frank but informal conversations with Chris – Have you done this? Have you done that? What can I do to help? That kind of thing. But nothing formal. That was a mistake. If we had done a formal evaluation, it might have come out that Chris was burning out or that our pay scale was off. In a larger organization with more staff, I would do a 360 evaluation and get staff input as well. I think it is critical.

Lessons Learned: Have a Trusting Relationship

Finally, I think the board chair and the ED need to have a trusting relationship. We are close. We are friends. But still Chris did not feel comfortable coming to me about the issues. Instead, Chris started looking for another job. I would like to have a relationship built on trust so before job hunting, Chris might have come to me and said, “Hey, I’ve got some issues here.”

Leave a Reply